Peep Show

Is Stanley Kubricks Eyes Wide Shut the work of a genius?

The orgy, with its incense, chants and grim solemnity, is an unfortunate hoot, and it's also surprisingly tame—no children or donkeys to jolt us out of the feeling that we've been here before. (And, from Story of the Eyeto Story of O, we have.) It's understandable that Kubrick didn't want to hoist people up in slings, if for no other reason than it has already been done. But it's unclear exactly what the sight of all this discreetly writhing flesh is supposed to mean, either for us or for Bill. In the novella, the orgy stands in for Fridolin's own roiling unconscious—a bacchanalia of all his fears and desires, especially about his wife. Here, the orgy comes off more like an outtake from an old Madonna video; it's hands-down the worst scene in the film. From this point on, as Bill ploddingly retraces most of the same steps as his 1920s counterpart, Eyes Wide Shut begins to sound less like an engagingly cryptic title and more like a critical evaluation. It doesn't help that the film's strongest actor has gone missing. Cruise is a natural performer, but he's no match for Kidman, and his fame makes for its own sort of distraction: never once do you forget that you're watching one of the world's most famous stars going through his paces. Although she isn't given enough to do after the film's first act, Kidman trumps Cruise's celebrity with the force of her talent. She's a technically brilliant actress who can give her lines nuances not always evident in the script, and more than once she seems to be contradicting Alice's words with her phrasing. There's a bit of voodoo in the way she drunkenly slurs the word "hus-band" to her would-be seducer at the Christmas party.

There's cunning behind Kidman's beauty, as well as a tingly predatory intensity. (She has a wonderful dirty little smile.) She suggests a far more complex character than the one summoned up by Kubrick and his screenwriting partner, Frederic Raphael. It's not surprising that the movie suffers whenever she's not onscreen, but you have to wonder why Kubrick didn't notice during the course of his widely publicized, yearlong shoot. Alice's fade into the background isn't merely a drag; it's at the heart of the film's larger, more intractable problem. Seven decades have lapsed between the time the book was written and the movie was shot, and while everyone from Freud himself to Simone de Beauvoir to Dr. Ruth has chimed in on the topic, there's something weirdly antediluvian about the film's vision of female sexuality. Kubrick obviously gets a kick out of parading around so much tits and ass, but he doesn't seem remotely interested in Freud's great (unanswered) question, "What do women want?" Schnitzler apparently had something of a clue. According to historian Peter Gay, the writer kept an impressive log not only of his copious sexual conquests, but also of the number of orgasms he had achieved, along with those he hoped he had given his female partners.

The price of Kubrick and Raphael's stubborn fidelity to the content if not the form of the novella is deadly: the movie feels as if it were made by a couple of old farts who haven't yet figured out that if Alice were spending this much time alone, she would probably be spending it in the company of her shower massage. Kubrick doesn't put out in Eyes Wide Shut, and it's hard to know why. Although he was contracted to deliver a movie to Warner Bros. that could secure an R rating, there's a restraint—almost a demureness—to the sex that has nothing to do with the MPAA. The much-discussed orgy scene is about 80 seconds long, and the only shocking thing about it is just how banal it all seems. As Bill roams around the mansion, he sees men pumping women splayed across tables, a woman bouncing mechanically on some guy's lap, a couple of other women feigning oral sex, but with their masks on, not a tongue in sight. Everyone is banging to the same beat (no one at this party seems to have much rhythm), but it's fucking without the heavy breathing, without the sweat, without the heat. We can't see Bill's face, tell if he's getting turned on (or off) because of the mask, and his body language is similarly unreadable, as it is obscured by his cape. The rest of the partygoers are just as subdued. Most stand motionless around the copulating pairs, their masks doing the emoting for them, while in one room, some of the would-be libertines dance listlessly to the ironic strains of "Strangers in the Night."

When a woman asks the too-good doctor if he's enjoying himself, he answers that he's had a very interesting look around. And however modest, Bill's roundabout is unquestionably more titillating than the one most Americans will see: in order to secure an R, Warner Bros. digitally obscured all of the film's simulated sex scenes by inserting sham revelers in front of the offending tableaux. (At the Los Angeles press screenings, where uncensored prints were shown alongside the sanitized footage, Kubrick's longtime executive producer and brother-in-law, Jan Harlan, assured the audience that the director himself had conceived of this solution.) These digitized fig leaves are more than just embarrassingly juvenile; they're corrupt. The hypocrisy and cowardice of both the MPAA and Warner Bros. are contemptible but expected, and it goes without saying that there's something seriously wrong with a culture that endorses the sight of a man's brains being splattered across the screen, as in Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, but needs to blot out the image of two people engaged in a vigorous fuck. But what's specifically terrible here is what the obfuscation does for Eyes Wide Shut.

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